“Democracy must win, autocracy must die.”

According to Asia News:

In the list of charges, the Suning prosecutor shows some “evidence” of Chen’s attempts to subvert. They are four articles written between March 2009 and January 2011: “The Disease of the System and the Medicine of Constitutional Democracy,” “The Key to China’s Democratization is the Growth of a Civil Opposition,” “The Feet of the Rights Defense [Movement] and the Brain of the Constitutional Democracy Movement,” and “Thoughts on Human Rights Day Hunger Strike.”

Constitutional democracy… civil opposition… human rights… those are values our society celebrates. In fact, our Society celebrated those same values for most of the 20th century, especially after National Geographic’s brief and disastrous flirtation with fascism in the 1930s.

Autocrats maintain a strange allure, though. They manage to attract people who admire a certain kind of power. For instance, here’s environmentalist Mike Fay, a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, extolling the virtues of dictators and warlords in a 2006 interview:

Women’s Wear Daily: But don’t a lot of the countries you’re working in have dysfunctional governments?

Mike Fay: Yeah, but wherever you go on earth, humans organize themselves in some way. I find often the less national influence there is in the management equation, the more successful you are, because you’re dealing with local warlords. You can go right to the guy in charge and say, “Hey, we’re seeing way too much decrease in vegetation here, way too much willy-nilly burning here, let’s do something about it.” That guy can make that decision right there. He doesn’t have to ask the president, he doesn’t have to ask some minister. I think you can make progress more easily there than you can in this country. That’s for sure. [emphasis added]

In other words: Autocratic thugs care about the planet too. They get stuff done. They “make progress.” They don’t get bogged down “asking” anyone for anything.

To sum up: If your mission is “to inspire people to care about the planet” — and you’re willing to keep your mouth shut when democracy activists like Chen Wei get thrown in jail — then you’re welcome to do business in China:

Chris Johns (Editor of National Geographic Magazine) & Terry Adamson (NGS EVP) celebrate with our Society’s new publishing partners in the People’s Republic of China. (2007)

It’s worth remembering that such toasting and kowtowing have not been the norm for the National Geographic Society. Just 20 years ago — before our Society launched 30+ international editions — NGS was independent and self-confident enough to bring its members “the world and all that is in it,” including the march of the autocrats in China:


John Fahey, Chairman & CEO of the National Geographic Society

“You’ve got to change a bit….” (reprise)

{ from our Greatest Hits archive }

John Fahey comments on the future of non-profit organizations during a panel discussion in September 2010 in Washington, DC.

If you were willing to pay $39 for a ticket in September [of 2010], you could have listened to John Fahey, CEO of National Geographic, and NPR’s Vivian Schiller “Discuss the Future” of non-profit (media) organizations. The event, sponsored by Bisnow, was moderated by Richard Newman, a lawyer who represents both NPR and NGS. (We’ve never seen John participate in a panel moderated by a journalist, but it’s good to see him stepping up on any stage, even when chaperoned by his attorney.)

Although no transcript is available, Bisnow posted a very brief summary, including this observation by John:

“The minute you go international you’ve got to change a bit so you resonate with the local audiences,” John says. For example, when National Geographic Magazine published a story about Barcelona, the Spanish language edition had to change the title to “An American Visits Barcelona.” … John tells us that ideally National Geographic will be viewed as a truly local organization in all parts of the world.

Some reactions:

•  The Barcelona anecdote is more than ten years old, and not a particularly enlightening one because…

•  Tweaking the title of a feature story is breathtakingly insignificant compared to how John has changed both our Magazine and our Society. To “go international,” to “resonate with the local audiences,” and to get into Russia and China, John had to engineer some major changes in the Magazine’s editorial focus. Exhibit A: The National Geographic story you’ll never get to read.

• The Arabic edition of NGM is distributed in Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Yemen, Syria, Sudan, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia. It’s a trans-national magazine in a way that, say, NGM-Poland is not. How, then, will NGM-Arabic help the National Geographic Society be seen as a “truly local organization”?

NGM China launched in 2007.

• NGM’s local language partners are encouraged to produce some of their own content. But most local editions still rely on NGM headquarters to generate the bulk of the editorial. So, when Editor Chris Johns evaluates story proposals, he has to ask: Will this article appeal to readers in Brazil, Bulgaria, China, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, the Netherlands, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Israel, Hungary, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Serbia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Thailand, Turkey… all the Arabic-speaking countries listed above… and a host of English-speaking countries. As a result, you end up with lots of critter, climate, and landscape stories, and none with a title like “Thomas Jefferson: Architect of Freedom.”

If John were a bit more forthcoming, we imagine him saying something like this:

… The minute you go international you’ve got to change a lot— especially when venturing beyond the Western world. You must absorb the local customs, beliefs, and values, and then reflect them back to the local market. You must embrace a particular kind of multiculturalism. You must satisfy your customers. In effect, you must become a publishing chameleon that can blend seamlessly and simultaneously into many different surroundings.

Such a dramatic makeover often requires bold steps. In National Geographic’s case, we’ve had to abandon some old ways, and embrace new ones. Let me give you an example….

July 1944

Years ago, National Geographic refused to publish stories about the Soviet Union. Why? Because during most of the Cold War, the Magazine’s editors were staunch anti-communists. During World War II, National Geographic actively promoted the sale of U.S. war bonds on the cover of the Magazine (right) because the editors had an agenda: Defeat fascism. For decades, NGM published stories with the word “Our” in the title — Our Armies of Mercy (May 1917, about the American Red Cross); Our Growing Interstate Highway System (February 1968); Our National Forests: Problems in Paradise (September 1982). That first-person-plural pronoun reflected the fact that National Geographic is the official journal of a Society which, back then, saw itself, its members, and the world in national, not international terms.

Most of all, the Magazine, from the 1940s to the 1980s, had a clear point of view — one that celebrated freedom and democracy.

Problem is, how can you export a Magazine like that to China? You can’t. So I began introducing some fundamental changes at NGS — but I did so gradually, so as not to alarm the natives.  [laughter] Among my innovations:

•  We now focus less on national geography, and more on the natural world — trees, critters, climate and such.

•  I crafted a new mission statement: Inspiring people to care about the planet.” That’s less national, more global. It also frames Society-wide initiatives such as our efforts to protect big cats. (We’ll leave the protection of free speech to others.)

Chris Johns

I picked Chris Johns, a wildlife photographer with virtually no management experience, to be the Magazine’s Editor. (I pay him more than $625,000 per year, which may seem like an exorbitant salary for an editor of a non-profit ink-on-paper magazine that’s dying. But I find the money encourages Chris to be more open-minded about the changes I’ve needed him to implement.)

•  I’m also working hard to eliminate the word “Society” from our nameplate and brand profile. Why? Because people don’t want to belong as much as they want to buy — DVDs, t-shirts, trips to New Zealand, luggage, bedroom furniture… whatever. Don’t think “membership”; think “retail.”

Put another way: If you see the world in national terms, then people are citizens who embrace different allegiances and values. That’s a tough world in which to scale up a media business. But if you see the world as a marketplace, then people are consumers who buy stuff.

These two identities — citizen & consumer — are not mutually exclusive, of course. But one of them creates a much bigger arena where we can sell our cheetah pictures.

My business challenge has been to identify a global common denominator that will help transform National Geographic into a profitable global brand.

My approach has been to focus on what people share (the planet) instead of on what makes people different (i.e., our values).

Unfortunately, there are two downsides to my strategy. First, I’m abandoning one of National Geographic’s secrets to success: Difference. Those classic Geographic photos of bare-breasted women were not just titillating for teenage boys; they were also a vivid reminder that the world is an eye-popping kaleidoscope of nations and cultures and people who understand the world in dramatically different ways.

Second, by focusing on The Planet, we end up climbing into bed with some nasty characters — autocrats, dictators, and demagogues. That may strike you as wrong, or immoral, or soulless. But let’s be frank: I run a business, not a seminary.

I hasten to add that I enjoy a luxury that many other media executives don’t: Freedom from scrutiny. The non-profit side of the Society has no stockholders. The employees have no union. NGS has “members,” but they have no power, no vote, no real voice. And I almost never agree to be interviewed by journalists. Which means the future of the National Geographic Society is almost entirely in the hands of about 20 people — the Board of Trustees, many of whom I’ve hand-picked, and… me.

All that — plus, as CEO & Chairman of this tax-exempt, non-profit Society, I’m paid more than $1.35 million per year.

The take-away for all you non-profit executives in the audience?

•  Don’t be afraid to change “a bit” — or a lot.

•  Evaluate the growth potential of various global markets, and re-position yourself as needed. After all, one dollar of revenue from Beijing counts the same as one dollar of revenue from Boston.

•  Hire senior managers who — after federal, state, and FICA deductions — will eagerly embrace your values and vision.


Stay thirsty, my friends.   [laughter]

Any questions?


The Liberty Project: Who’s in?

“Please use your liberty to promote ours.”

Aung San Suu Kyi’s words inspired Anne Bayin’s photographic project.

See more portraits at The Guardian.


Meanwhile, at National Geographic:

Chris Johns & Terry Adamson celebrate NGM's new publishing partnership in the People's Republic of China. (2007)

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Which is why we created this video mash-up — audio & video from Great Migrations, National Geographic’s recent wildlife extravaganza, combined with still images that tell a very different story.

Persecuted Christians in China: Does our Society care?

Let’s say you’re a journalist in China who is working on a story about Christians who worship in underground churches. This is the official response you can expect:

(The reporter here is Stephen McDonell of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.)

Now let’s say you’re a journalist in China who wants to do stories about cheetahs and lovely landscapes. This is the official response you can expect:

Chris Johns & Terry Adamson shake hands with our new publishing partners in Beijing (2007).


Dear John,
Do you believe freedom of religion in China is important
to our society — and our Society?

If so, why does the National Geographic Society’s official journal ignore the subject?
If not, why not?

“Saving the soul of a nation….”


Chris Johns

“I believe that each of us is capable of the extraordinary. It may reveal itself in some small act or gesture, but the possibility exists. The courageous makes itself known in many ways, from saving the life of a snake to saving the soul of a nation.

Keep in mind the hummingbird—the first animal in the crowd to take action in the face of a daunting challenge. Be like that blur of energy with a beak full of water and a heart full of hope:

Do what you can!”

— Chris Johns, Oregon State commencement address, June 12, 2005



Chris Johns & Terry Adamson celebrate NGM's new publishing partnership in the People's Republic of China. (2007)



Celebrating the launch of National Geographics new Arabic edition in 2010. (Photo: AFP)

Toasting & applauding our Society’s own demise

An excellent reminder to all repressive governments,
and to the tax-exempt organizations
that effectively legitimize that repression.

Chris Johns & Terry Adamson celebrate the launch of NGM-China in 2007 (left) and NGM-Arabic in 2010 (right)

The company we continue to keep

This week’s edition:


National Geographic’s publishing partnership in China
was blessed by The Hammers.
Why did they approve?
Largely (we think)
because our Society’s leaders,
who once stood up to tyrants,
now speak a language that’s loved by Hammers everywhere

Chris Johns & Terry Adamson celebrate NGM's new publishing partnership in the People's Republic of China. (2007)


Any thoughts, John?

Dear Chen Wei & other enemies of the Motherland: Our Party is for you, too — if you’ll just shut up.

Here’s an incomplete list of people who have disappeared in China in the last month or so (via ChinaGeeks):

People who we know have been arrested:

  1. Ran Yunfei 冉云飞 (inciting to subvert state authority)
  2. Ding Mao 丁茅 (inciting to subvert state authority)
  3. Chen Wei 陈卫 (inciting to subvert state authority)

People we know have been detained:

  1. Quan Lianzhao 全连昭 (inciting to subvert state authority)
  2. Liang Haiyi 梁海怡 (inciting to subvert state authority)
  3. Zhu Yufu 朱虞夫 (inciting to subvert state authority)
  4. Guo Weidong 郭卫东 (inciting to subvert state authority)
  5. Sun Desheng 孙德胜 (inciting to subvert state authority)
  6. Liu Huiping 刘慧萍 (inciting to subvert state authority)
  7. Wei Qiang 魏强 (illegal assembly)
  8. Yang Qiuyu 杨秋雨 (illegal assembly)
  9. Hua Chunhui 华春辉 (endangering national security)
  10. Li Hai 李海 (inciting disturbance)
  11. Li Yongsheng 李永生 (inciting disturbance)
  12. Wang Lihong 王荔蕻 (inciting disturbance)
  13. Ma He 马贺 (inciting disturbance)
  14. Wei Shuishan 魏水山 (unknown)
  15. Bi Mingkai 薜明凯 (unknown)
  16. Huang Xiang 黄香 (unknown)
  17. Ai Weiwei 艾未未 (unknown)
  18. Wen Tao 文涛 (unknown)

People under house arrest:

  1. Tang Jingling 唐荆陵 (inciting to subvert state authority)
  2. Ye Du 野渡 (inciting to subvert state authority)

People being held in mental institutions:

  1. Qian Jin 钱进

People who are missing (an incomplete list):

  1. Liu Guohui 刘国慧
  2. Li Tiantian 李天天
  3. Jiang Tianyong 江天勇
  4. Teng Biao 滕彪
  5. Zhang Shanguang 张善光
  6. Qi Zhiyong 齐志勇
  7. Gu Chuan 古川
  8. Liu Shihui 刘士辉 and his wife
  9. Yuan Xinting 袁新亭
  10. Zhang Tao 张涛 (aka 呆麻雀张)
  11. Zhang Xianle 张献乐
  12. Cheng Wanyun 程婉芸
  13. Liu Dejun 刘德军
  14. Liu Anjun 刘安军
  15. Zhang Haibo 张海波
  16. Lan Ruoyu 蓝若宇
  17. Hu Di 胡荻
  18. Zhang Jingpeng 张敬朋
  19. Li Shuangde 李双德
  20. E Laoda 鹅老大
  21. Peng Xinzhong 彭新忠
  22. Zhou Li 周莉
  23. Wang Yanfen 汪燕芬
  24. Ni Yulan
  25. Ding Jiqin
  26. Zhang Dajun


Before it was (erroneously) considered to be a business liability,
celebrating human freedom
was of great interest to the leaders of the
National Geographic Society.

NGM, February 1976


NGM, September 1987

Our Society: On the wrong side of history

Dear John,

Chinese authorities on Sunday detained Ai Weiwei, an internationally renowned artist and an outspoken critic of the government.

In 2007, our Society established a publishing partnership in China that required approval by government officials. Which makes us wonder:

Where do we stand in the case of Ai Weiwei?
With a man who yearns to breathe free?
Or with a
government that’s trying to suffocate him?

We ask because we fear our Society
has made a terrible mistake.

Chris & Terry stand tall with our new partners in China.

Chris & Terry clink glasses with our new partners in China.

Chris & Terry shake hands with our new partners in China.

Any thoughts, John?


“In the end we will remember not the words of our enemies,
but the silence of our friends.”

— Martin Luther King, Jr.

Leadership & Freedom

President Barack Obama speaks at the National Defense University in Washington, DC, on March 28, 2011.

“… Born, as we are, out of a revolution by those who longed to be free, we welcome the fact that history is on the move in the Middle East and North Africa, and that young people are leading the way. Because wherever people long to be free, they will find a friend in the United States. Ultimately, it is that faith – those ideals – that are the true measure of American leadership.”

— President Barack Obama, in an address at the National Defense University in Washington, DC, to update the American people on the situation in Libya. (March 28, 2011) via whitehouse.gov


National Geographic Then:

NGM, May 1953

National Geographic Now:

Chris Johns & Terry Adamson celebrate the launch of NGM-China in 2007 (left) and NGM-Arabic in 2010 (right)

Any thoughts, John?

NO NEW POSTS will be published here after February 6, 2014. THIS IS WHY.